RPW Column: Welcome Back, NASCAR! Watkins Glen Set For First Race Weekend Since Pandemic

Column By: MARTY CZEKALA / RPW – WATKINS GLEN, NY – The wait is over.  For the first time since COVID-19 shocked the world, NASCAR is back in New York at the beautiful Watkins Glen International.

The NASCAR Cup Series headlines the weekend with the Go Bowling at the Glen this Sunday. Preceding the action will be the Xfinity Series’ Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey 200 and Camping World Truck Series’ United Rentals 176 on Saturday, and the ARCA Menards Series’ CleanHarbors 100 Friday evening.

What’s it mean to be back at Watkins Glen?

Many drivers talked about being back at an incredible road racing facility; here’s what they had to say.

#9 Chase Elliott, Cup Series (Defending 2-time winner and 2020 Cup champion)

“The fans up there have been awesome. That forever will be a special place to me whether we run good there again or not. Your first of anything is special, especially that first Cup win. Watkins Glen will always hold a special spot.”

The past two years, Chase has had close battles with Martin Truex Jr. for the win. Truex has been in contention for every Cup win at the Glen since 2016.

“Martin’s a great road racer. I’ve enjoyed racing against the last couple of years up there. The last time we went, I felt he was every good as us, if not probably better. If he got the lead from me, I don’t feel like we would’ve got him back. When a guy gets close to you, they’re typically faster than you. I know we have to be better to challenge again. We’ll see what plays out.”

#12 Ryan Blaney, Cup Series (Winner at Atlanta this season)

“I’ve always really enjoyed the area. That racetrack puts on not only a great race, but I feel like the fan experience there is a very good time. They pack that place out, and I’m looking forward to seeing it this weekend, seeing all the fans back there, and really enjoying themselves. I was really bummed out last year when we couldn’t go just because, like I said, the racetrack is great and the area around it is just a beautiful place, so I’ll be looking forward to seeing some fans from inside the car, and I’m sure they’ll be walking around the garage a little bit. It’s just nice to be back.

#21 Matt DiBenedetto, Cup Series (Finished 6th in 2019)

“I’m looking forward to it, especially after Road America. We led laps, had a bunch of speed, and really made the biggest gain on the #21 team on the road courses.

It’s going to be so good to see everybody at the track. The way it should be, have the freedom to go have some fun at a really cool legendary track.”

DiBenedetto is searching for his first career NASCAR win with the Wood Brothers.

#22 Austin Cindric, XFINITY Series (Defending winner and 2020 Xfinity champion)

“I’ve thought about it because we didn’t have the race last season, and obviously the last time we were there, I won the race, and it was my first win in the Xfinity Series and to think how far I’ve come as a driver in that amount of time is pretty incredible, and I’ve got a lot of the same guys around me. It’s gonna be fun to kind of show up there knowing what we did the last time, but it’s still the same challenge.  That’s not gonna make it any easier, I can promise you that, but it’s a fun racetrack. It’s a great track to have on the schedule, and I know there’s always a great fan base that shows up at that place, so looking forward to going back.”

Cindric’s primary opponent not just for the race but in the Xfinity Series points standings is AJ Allmendinger. On how AJ and his Kaulig Racing team have done, Cindric said

“I think Kaulig has really stepped up, especially on the road courses. You’ve seen at like Mid-Ohio, for example, he was flat-out the dominant car, and I feel like on occasions I would say the 54, especially with Kyle driving, has probably been the best car on road courses so far this year if we’re gonna single anyone out, and I feel like on occasion it’s either AJ or I that can match that pace, so I feel like I’m gonna learn something this weekend about kind of where they stand, where we stand. I feel like we’ve been able to make improvements.

#16 AJ Allmendinger, XFINITY Series (Finished 2nd in 2019, but DQed due to failing post-race inspection)

“A very special race, but what I love about it is the crowds. I’ve been to Watkins Glen since 2007, but it seemed like 2010; the crowd just kept getting bigger and bigger. It was always cool to go there and see a packed house. The fans are so knowledgeable, and they love NASCAR racing in general. It was for sure, missed last year.”

“The race back in 2019 was my first road course race with Kaulig. That was part of the reason why they brought me here, to try to focus on the road course program. Our car wasn’t good at all. That was the whole goal to start there and keep on making it better. It was a battle. I really think the updates we’ve worked on the couple of races, we have a lot of speed of our cars. I like our chances.”

Trucks Return To The Glen

It’s been 21 years since the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has raced at Watkins Glen.

The last time there, Greg Biffle won the truck race, Kurt Busch finished runner-up, an owner named Rick Ware competed as a driver, and a Canadian road course ringer named Ron Fellows took third.

This is a massive race for some drivers. It is the final race of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular season before the Playoffs begin. Currently, Chandler Smith holds the final spot by 40 points. The only possible way he misses out would be if a driver below him in points wins and makes the Playoffs.

Truck Series driver Stewart Friesen makes his first NASCAR start in New York and spoke on it residing in Sprakers.

“It’s awesome. Growing up in Western New York, The Glen was always on our radar. When I was a kid, it always meant the end of summer. When they raced at The Glen, it was time to go back to school. Been there a couple of times, never made any laps around the track. Trying to get dialed in and seems like a fun track.”

ARCA Returns To The Glen As Well

It’s been 20 years since the ARCA Menards Series raced at Watkins Glen. The race is usually a race on the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East calendar. However, since NASCAR purchased ARCA, it’s been merged into a race on the ARCA Series calendar. The last winner was John Finger. Per Racing-Reference, his last attempted start was 2006, but he did not qualify.

There have only been three different winners this season. Two of them are Ty Gibbs and Corey Heim with seven and four, respectively. The two got into it last week battling for the win at Winchester, which Gibbs won.

But the big story locally is Tonawanda, NY’s Andy Jankowiak making his first road course race at The Glen. In four ARCA starts, Jankowiak has had four top tens, all on the lead lap, with the best finish of seventh at Talladega and Pocono.

“It’s been a lot of work. I’m hoping to get on the simulator with TJ Majors to coach me a little bit. We just got to get there. I think it’s going to be a learning process for me. We’re going to go there Friday go with a vanilla setup. I just got to keep it on track. If I finish the race, it will make us a lot better next time.”

Here’s your TV schedule for the weekend
ARCA Menards Series: CleanHarbors 100, 6pm on FS1
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: United Rentals 176, 12:30pm on FS1
NASCAR Xfinity Series: Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey 200, 4pm on CNBC
NASCAR Cup Series: Go Bowling at The Glen, 3pm on NBCSN